VANCOUVER -- The head of a Vancouver-based biotech company says he’s frustrated at the delay in delivering what he calls a potentially "life-saving" COVID-19 treatment.

Carl Hansen is the CEO of AbCellera, which discovered an antibody treatment for the virus last year. In partnership with Eli Lilly Canada, the two companies developed the drug bamlanivimab.

It was first approved for emergency use by Health Canada in November, shortly after FDA approval in the U.S. Since then, Hansen says nearly half a million people over the border have been treated with the drug, but that’s not the case in Canada.

“Within the country it then falls within the provinces to make recommendations on use and that recommendation has been withheld so it has not been getting to patients,” Hansen told CTV News in an interview.

In B.C., the treatment is not recommended for use outside of approved clinical trials. When referring to therapies for COVID-19, the B.C. Centre for Disease Control website states, “While positive results for a small number of treatments are being published, the efficacy, safety and role in therapy for most pharmacological treatments for COVID-19 remain unknown.”

Hansen says there have been multiple clinical trials of bamlanivimab already carried out in the United States, saying those trials have “all shown that if treated within the first 10 days on infection, it reduces the chance of hospitalization between 70 and 80 per cent.”

“It’s heartbreaking that that innovation that came out of research done here in Canada is not being delivered to Canadian patients,” Hansen said.

Treating COVID-19 variants

Hansen says his company’s research shows bamlanivimab is effective against the main strain of COVID-19 and the B.1.1.7 variant associated with the U.K., but variants associated with Brazil and South Africa are proving to be resistant.

“When an antibody by itself does not work the option is to combine it with a new antibody,” Hansen said. “We always knew that that would be required and there are two combinations that are in development.”

Eli Lilly, who co-developed bamlanivimab with AbCellera, has already developed a second antibody treatment called etesevimab to be used in conjunction with bamlanivimab to target the variants of concern.

In March, the company published data backing the combined drug therapy. Based on Phase 3 clinical trial data, the bamlanivimab-etesevimab duo cut hospitalizations by 87 per cent versus the placebo.

The FDA gave the drug combo emergency use authorization in February, and it's been submitted to Health Canada for review.

Canada’s first clinical trial

Canada’s first clinical trial is now underway in B.C., run by Dr. Greg Haljan, regional medical director of research for Fraser Health.

He echoes Hansen’s concerns that there has been a delay in getting the treatment to patients.

“Our hospitals have been strained for a long time and it’s been a bit frustrating that we don’t have any therapies in the community to prevent hospitalizations,” Haljan said.

The trial has been up and running for two weeks but he says there’s been difficulties in getting volunteers to take part.

When an individual within Fraser Health tests positive for COVID-19, the health authority asks if they would like to take part in medical research. If they agree, members of Haljan’s team can then reach out.

But not everyone can take part. Patients must be over 18 and meet other medical criteria for being high-risk for moderate or severe COVID-19, for example “if they’re older or have health conditions that make COVID at lot worse,” and reaching them is time-sensitive.

“(We need) patients at the peak of their contagiousness, we want to catch them as early as possible, before four days after their test is done and ideally as soon as possible,” Haljan said.

Once a patient qualifies, they are invited to a clinic at Peace Arch Hospital to receive a one-time intravenous infusion. So far, about 70 people have signed up to be part of the clinical trial. Dr. Haljan says they need about 300.

“We’re really trying hard to make sure that folks understand that participation in research is not getting an experimental therapy in a laboratory, it’s about participating in a health care program,” Haljan said.

More information about the clinical trial can be found online.